130 years on, lizard species found by Jewish explorer resurfaces
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130 years on, lizard species found by Jewish explorer resurfaces

Nose-horned lizard, discovered in 1891 in Indonesia by Elio Modigliani, son of a Florentine banker, not seen again until live specimen spotted in 2018, scientists report

Sue Surkes is The Times of Israel's environment reporter.

Modigliani's Nose-horned Lizard. (Screenshot/YouTube)
Modigliani's Nose-horned Lizard. (Screenshot/YouTube)

A living version of a luminous green nose-horned lizard named for the Jewish Italian scientist and explorer who discovered it in Southeast Asia has been found again for the first time nearly 130 years later in North Sumatra in Indonesia.

Modigliani’s lizard, Harpesaurus modiglianii, got its official taxonomic description and name in 1933 — a year after the death of Elio Modigliani, the son of a Florentine banker who became a zoologist, botanist and anthropologist, and who visited Sumatra and several islands off Indonesia’s western coast between 1886 and 1894, traveling among head-hunting tribes.

He discovered the nose-horned lizard — so named because of the protuberance on its nose — in 1891.

Five species of reptile and one amphibian are named after the intrepid collector.

But the nosed-horned lizard was not seen again until 2018, when a wildlife biologist, Chairunas Adha Putra, went on a bird survey in North Sumatra and discovered a dead lizard specimen with strange features near a volcanic lake and promptly called herpetologist, Thasun Amarasinghe, of the University of Indonesia in Depok, ScienceNews reported Tuesday.

The Jewish Italian anthropologist, zoologist and plant collector, Elio Modigliani – (Elio Modigliani, “Un viaggio a Nias”, 1890, fratelli Treves, Milano, (Wikimedia Commons)

Immediately identifying the corpse as Modigliani’s lizard, Amarasinghe asked Putra to go back to where he had found it and look for a living one. It took Putra five days, but he eventually located one, lying on a branch, “apparently sleeping.”

He measured it, took pictures, and observed its behavior, enabling Amarasinghe to compare it with Elio Modigliani’s find and to confirm that both the dead one and the living one spotted by Putra were indeed Modigliani’s nose-horned lizards.

In a May article in Taprobanica: The Journal of Asian Biodiversity, Amarasinghe, Putra and colleagues reported that while the specimen that Modigliani provided to a Genoa natural history museum is pale blue due to preservation, the living horned-nose lizards are mostly a luminous green and can change color for camouflage.

ScienceNews interviewed Tel Aviv University herpetologist Shai Meiri, an expert on lizard species with small ranges, who has shown that many so-called dragon lizards, like Modigliani’s, live in small, inaccessible places, making them difficult to study.

According to Meiri, there are 30 species of the Agamidae family of lizards, which includes Modigliani’s, that have not been seen since they were first described.

While Amarasinghe and Putra are worried about the massive deforestation going on around the area where the live lizard was found, Meiri was more positive, saying its conservation needs could now be studied and understood and measures to protect it could hopefully be taken.

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